One of my favorite and most despised commercial seasons is just after winter holiday, right around the start of new year. We see advertisements for new plastic containers that hold all of the garbage we just bought and don’t need and–among others–we hear the dulcet tones of one Jennifer Hudson (insert other celebrities: Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, Kristie Alley, and so on), singing about a renewed sense of self post-whatever-weight-loss-package she endorses. These advertisements tell us things we believe we need to hear: this is your year, you will take time for yourself, you will change, you will exercise, you will use that gym membership, and you will start eating only organic foods. Except when you travel. And that gym is so crowded. And your knees hurt from the new exercise regimen. The list can go on and on.
No, I’m not so terribly cynical to believe change isn’t possible. And I confess that I, too, am guilty of the self-improvement scams that so-often pervade the month of January. What’s more, I’m guilty of these scams twice a year: January and August.
August is for teachers like January is for everyone else in the Western World.
I am not quite a teacher and not quite not a teacher. I’m a graduate instructor at a public university and, on average, I teach two classes per semester, four-five classes in a year, depending on summer availability. I teach mostly introductory level composition and literature courses, but there is some wiggle room to teach something new or different each year.
Every year I do implement new pedagogical strategies; I am, after all, a relatively new teacher and there is always room to grow, adapt, change, even for the most experienced instructor.
But at what point do we get real with ourselves?
I mean, where is the line between rational points of self-improvement in one’s pedagogical practices and a total meltdown of I’m-going-to-change-everything-about-myself-and-the-way-I-teach? Can we not also find this line somewhere between drinking less soda and renovating your house for a new home gym?
The past several weeks have gotten me thinking about the varying degrees of change we seek at the start of a new semester or school year. Because of the delightfully collaborative nature of Twitter–just see #syllabus–it is here that I find the most helpful and (only sometimes) the most baffling of instructor calendars, lesson plans, syllabi, and more.
It’s these baffling ones that make me think, Oh, this must have really worked for you, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work at all for me. Sometimes this doubt in a lesson plan or a particular practice is just that: doubt. Or fear. Maybe even worries about doing something new and doing it badly.
But sometimes, I think, this doubt is justified. Student population, funding of the program, location and timing of the course, etc. can all influence how a class is taught, how students learn the material, and how we teach it.
There’s already so much written about incorporating technology in the classroom and re-imagining the nature of university education, but it can be quite challenging to adapt lessons, units, and even entire classes to incorporate something new or fit a new model of teaching.
Sometimes we adapt lessons because we have to–such as moving to a new institution, recognizing that the classroom you’re teaching in doesn’t have functional computers, etc. But sometimes we change things–and when I say “we” here I really, sadly mean “I”–because we think we should, or we see other lesson plans and we think, “Wow, that looks so cool and incredible. I should be doing stuff like that!”
This is probably one of my largest regrets in adapting a lesson. In my first year of teaching, I was living and working in Illinois for the first time, having just finished a pedagogy course with what felt like far more experienced instructors, and I used a “Department-Approved Assignment” without fully understanding the mechanics of said assignment. It was lazy teaching on my part and turned out to be a very teachable moment for myself.
Do It With Purpose
When I attempt to adapt a lesson or a class to a new model, I try to think about what a mentor once asked me: Why? This question was not, of course, an effort to make me feel badly about trying something new, but instead forced me to articulate why I was making particular pedagogical choices. It wasn’t just “technology for technology’s sake,” or even “multimodality” because it’s a decent buzzword. Instead, it’s a reminder that as an instructor you make all kinds of choices in the development of a course and you have to see some of those through, even if they’re huge flops; it’s OK, as long as you know why you’re doing it.
If you’re still relatively green like me remember the mantra, Good Teachers Borrow, Great Teachers Steal. This is not to say do what I did in my first year of teaching, but instead read what’s current in your field in terms of pedagogy and figure out what does or does not work for you.
Before you think I’m just a big fat contrarian about weight loss, change, and new teaching practices, let me re-emphasize my love of organization, self-improvement, learning, and so on. I’m very interested to know what healthy practices you’re utilizing this summer to prep for your classes.What always stays the same, no matter what? What changes do you make? How do you ensure that those changes aren’t like, say, New Year’s resolutions (where the retention is usually until February)?